Frocks and Powder Puffs

Jackson, Vanessa (2022) Frocks and Powder Puffs. Women's History Today, 3 (5). pp. 13-22. ISSN 2752-6704

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This article argues that the under-valuing of costume designers’ work in the US, identified by Miranda Banks, extended to women’s wider work in television craft departments, including costume, make-up and production design, in the BBC in the second half of the twentieth century.

The study draws on oral history testimony from women working in BBC television in costume, make-up and production design departments from the 1950s to the 1990s. It explores the nature of their work and how they interacted with production and other departments.

The work of these women was frequently under-appreciated and often went uncredited, when the programmes were transmitted. One production designer mentioned animosity towards women, with hostility from male colleagues in engineering, who felt they were taking men’s jobs. This was less the case in female gendered departments like costume and make-up. Instead, they were often seen as “a bit of a nuisance”, as they adjusted costumes just before the cameras rolled, with cameramen and directors wanting to get them out of shot.

The roles these women undertook were complex, combining technical expertise with creative vision and management of resources and personnel. The nature of their contribution was often misunderstood as they strove to interpret the vision of the director bounded by the realities of what could be achieved. Working to tight production budgets they had to be resourceful and persuasive.

Often, they were marginalised and not listened to. For instance, extensive plans the Head of Costume had drawn up when moving to a new broadcast centre were ignored. The facilities she was given were inadequate and impractical.

The hours that were demanded of them were frequently exhausting. One costume designer talked of working a sequence of 21-hour days, whilst another explained how she and two colleagues had campaigned for a maximum 72 hour working week, with little backing from the union or management: a battle she eventually won. The long hours meant that combining motherhood with working in costume or design was hugely challenging; one of my interviewees remembered a colleague being told by her manager that she would have to leave after the birth of a child.

Ironically, despite the privations and challenges these women faced, all had had long, and mostly satisfying, careers. They particularly enjoyed the collective endeavour across all departments to put on the best show they possibly could.

Item Type: Article
16 September 2022Accepted
1 November 2022Published Online
Subjects: CAH24 - media, journalism and communications > CAH24-01 - media, journalism and communications > CAH24-01-05 - media studies
Divisions: Faculty of Arts, Design and Media > Birmingham School of Media
Depositing User: Vanessa Jackson
Date Deposited: 03 Feb 2023 15:12
Last Modified: 20 Mar 2023 16:17

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